…In fact, it’s cold as hell. So sang Elton John and it’s a lesson the makers of The Martian have taken to heart. Okay, so American astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) chooses to raise potatoes rather than children when he’s left for dead by his NASA crewmates on the Martian surface, but it’s close enough. And the temperature drops so low that at one point, poor Mark is forced to cozy up to a barrel of spent nuclear fuel to keep warm, which sounds pretty hellish to us.
Portents weren’t exactly auspicious for The Martian. The source novel, originally self-published by computer programmer Andy Weir, was readable but hardly a masterpiece. And then there was director Ridley Scott, whose last decade—from A Good Year to Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings—has been a far cry from his genre-defining classics like Alien and Blade Runner. But he’s pulled it off: This is Scott’s best film since Gladiator, while Weir’s clunky prose is electrified by Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard’s sparky script.
Of all the trials thrown at Matt Damon while marooned on Mars, perhaps the most gruesome is when he he’s forced to open up a bunch of packets filled with his crewmates’ waste, stick the contents in a big bucket and mash it up with a stick. There are no nutrients in the Martian soil, so he needs the poo to make his potato plants bloom. But Matt doesn’t complain (or, apparently, feel the need to wash his crops). If they ever need a spokesman for the soiled potato industry, look no further.
Blame the demands of the family audience, but The Martian goes light-years out of its way to avoid all mention of the word fuck—despite the fact that its characters use the word regularly. When our marooned hero finally makes contact with NASA, he’s understandably emotional. But when his messages are read out to the agency higher-ups—and, by extension, the audience—his gleeful swears are watered down to “effing.” Even more weirdly, when we see Watney’s messages printed out on screen, the f-words are, through some miracle of NASA’s internal computer system, automatically starred out. The word shit, however, is apparently totally fine.
In real life, NASA has made a concerted effort to introduce racial diversity into the space program. In The Martian those strides appear to have been rolled back. With the exception of Michael Peña’s wisecracking pilot Martinez, the crew of the Mars ship Ares 3 is strictly caucasian. Sure, the folks at the film's Mission Control are a fairly mixed group, but it’s not quite the same if you’re not in outer space. What do we want? Off-world equality! When do we want it? Sometime in the coming century!
What’s even more frustrating than being left for dead on a barren alien world with no way to contact home and be forced to subsist on shitty potatoes? Sellotape, that’s what. We won’t spoil things too much, but there’s one scene where Mark Watney’s entire survival depends on being able to tape together a piece of vital equipment, and the stuff ends up sticking to itself, to his spacesuit, to anything but what it’s supposed to stick to. Anyone who finds themselves mummified every December 24 will understand.
If there’s one thing better than blasting off in a rocket, it’s doing so to the beat of a classic ’70s pop hit. As last year’s massive Marvel hit proved, viewers will happily fork out for toe-tapping tunes they’ve known all their lives if you rewire their brains to associate it with fun space stuff. In The Martian, there’s a running gag that all our hero has to listen to in his remote Martian base is loads of disco—or what Ridley Scott and his people think is disco, but quite often isn’t (“Waterloo” by ABBA, for instance). We’re sure it’s purely a coincidence that massive soundtrack sales will follow.
As The Martian unfolds, the parallels with Steven Spielberg’s gritty WWII movie become increasingly clear. Both films involve expensive and risky missions to rescue Matt Damon (though The Martian doesn’t dig quite as deep into the moral murk as Ryan did). Both salute American pluck and ingenuity, and can be watched with your Dad on a Sunday afternoon. And both feature slightly unnecessary epilogue sequences involving flags.
The parallels between Ridley Scott’s film and Alfonso Cuarón’s genre-redefining 3-D space flick were inevitable. Both movies were working with the same special-effects technology, so they’re bound to share a common aesthetic. And yes, The Martian features a preponderance of floating debris, immersive starscapes and astronauts in suits spinning wildly. But there are deeper similarities, including a dedication to scientific realism, a salute to NASA’s achievements and a fair amount of slightly unconvincing, awkwardly crammed-in backstory.
We can’t imagine The Martian winning Best Picture—but then again, we could say that for every recent winner except 12 Years a Slave, and the Academy is an unpredictable bunch. We wouldn’t be surprised if it scores a nomination, and Ridley Scott is a strong outside bet for Best Director. But where the film is bound to hit big is in the technical awards. Unless Star Wars muscles in, it has the visual effects, costumes and sound categories sewn up. But however it pans out on the big night, The Martian has already done what it set out to do: offer a thrilling moviegoing experience, and prove that Ridley Scott is still a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.